I honestly didn’t expect to be back here so soon, sobered – again – by mirrors to our community.
Just in April, amid national focus on the Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman case, I visited a group of young, African-American athletes with the N.C. Runnin’ Rebels AAU basketball and mentoring club. I asked them to help us see through their eyes what it’s like walking in their shoes; free, yet feeling under constant suspicion, no matter their past deeds or future promise.
I chose to channel Job last month when national headlines hit home as native son Jonathan Wall, a 2012 Morehouse College alum and UNC-Chapel Hill graduate assistant en route to Harvard Law School charged he was head-locked and kicked out of the Downtown Sports Bar and Grill in Glenwood South because he is black. Seems others had been patient, too, waiting until Wall’s claims flooded social media to acknowledge their own.
But what my fellow church member, Loretta Faheem, told me recently suggests patience is too silent.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
On July 1, her son Kristopher, 19, excited about his first paycheck from his midnight-8 a.m. summer shift as an inventory clerk at BJ’s in Cary, decided to catch the bus home rather than get her up and out so early.
Although they hadn’t used public transportation since moving here from Chicago in 2007, Faheem respected her son’s step toward independence. They mapped out a plan: He’d walk to the bus stop at Meeting Place and Dillard Road and give her a check-in call by 8:30 a.m.
Kristopher never got that chance.
Instead, Faheem’s 8:41 a.m. call to him went unanswered. So did her 8:51 a.m. call, she said.
Kristopher, who will be a college sophomore at Virginia Union next month, was in handcuffs, detained by Cary police officers looking for a robbery suspect.
Faheem, a former staff member of the Cook County Chicago Public Defender’s Office, has both undergraduate and master’s degrees in criminal justice, and a paralegal certificate. She has raised Kristopher alone since her husband, Khalil Faheem, died in 1996. She has kept Kristopher involved in church and community with academic mentoring programs, work for the Raleigh Summer Youth Program at 14, and as a page in both the state House and Senate.
She also has taught him about the civil rights movement and has made sure he has met some important people still fighting for equality for all of us. You see, Kristopher’s dad was a drummer in a band with Ben Branch, the last person Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to when he leaned over the hotel balcony the day of his assassination to ask the band to play his favorite song later that night.
Faheem also has had to teach Kristopher how to carry himself as a black man in America.
“If he wants to go out alone for a jog, he can’t do it,” she said. “The presumption is that he is running from somewhere, not that he’s out jogging. The presumption of innocence is no longer of consideration.”
Now, Kristopher knows firsthand, she’s right.
Once at the bus stop that Sunday morning, Kristopher said, he realized he needed to be on the opposite side of the street. As he crossed, he noticed a police officer he had just seen pass make a U-turn.
At the adjacent bus stop, Kristopher said, the police officer, who is black, stopped and asked Kristopher his name, address and telephone number and for an ID. He gave the officer his name and ID, but not his address or telephone number, just as his mother always instructed, for safety.
Before long, another officer, who is white, arrived.
Not knowing why he’d been stopped, Kristopher said, he did, perhaps nervously, put his hand in his pocket. He was told to take it out and he did. When he put a hand in his pocket again, the white officer told the black officer to handcuff and search him. In addition to his cellphone, iPod, wallet and bus schedule, Kristopher also had in one of his back pockets a box cutter, which he explained was issued to him at work to open boxes.
After many requests from Kristopher, his mother was called. Before she arrived, officers took off the handcuffs.
“To be in handcuffs for the first time, it’s definitely a nervous, scary feeling,” Kristopher said. “It’s definitely surreal, but I’m not shocked.
“I was a black man standing at a bus stop,” he said. “I didn’t think he would stop me, but I knew he would look at me.”
Reality set in when Kristopher saw the officer U-turn.
“A bunch of thoughts and images came to my mind: Trayvon Martin, Emmitt Till,” Kristopher said. “It’s really sad.
“The one thing that always comes to my mind is we need something to be done about things like this, but instead it’s getting worse,” he said. “No matter what happens, it’s getting worse.”
Officers told Faheem they stopped Kristopher because he matched the robbery suspect’s description: A black man 5- to 6-feet tall with a short afro wearing dark shoes and khaki shorts.
Kristopher, however, is 6’3” with unmistakably curly hair. He was wearing khaki pants, a Senate page T-shirt and brown, gold and white shoes, Faheem said.
Another reason for their suspicion, they told Faheem: Buses don’t run on Sundays, something she and Kristopher never considered because they do in Chicago, she said.
Nothing was documented about Kristopher’s ordeal, Faheem said, adding she received an apology from a Cary Police lieutenant who also said officers acted with their legal rights.
“I remain infuriated over the police officer’s flagrant disregard for my son’s human rights, as well as his civil rights,” Faheem said. “Each of us is duty-bound to acknowledge innocence until proven guilty.
“Instead, there’s always an element of suspicion as opposed to a presumption of innocence. By virtue of your physical appearance, you are a suspect. That’s outrageous.”
It is outrageous.